Crowds honoring WWII and other Dutch dead in Dam Square, Amsterdam. Source: http://www.rnw.nl/.
Since 1945 the Dutch have held a national day of remembrance honoring those civilians and military who died during WWII, and all wars or peace-keeping missions thereafter. At 8:00 p.m. on May 4 all over the country a two-minute period of absolute silence is observed. Cars, buses, bicycles, trains and trams stop where they are. People come quietly together in public squares, waiting for the traditional bugle call for silence. People still making their way home stop on the sidewalks, doff their hats and bow their heads to acknowledge those who died in defense of freedom and liberty.
The commemoration is solemn and sobering, intended so every citizen, no matter how young or aged, whether recent citizen or WWII survivor, will never forget that freedom can be costly to win – and to hold onto – and to silently thank as well as remember those who died. There are no firecrackers, no block parties and barbecues, no brash brass bands; the festivities will come the next day when Dutch across the country will celebrate liberation on May 5, 1945 from Nazi occupation.
By far, the largest May 4 public commemoration takes place in Amsterdam at the National Memorial on the Dam, the main square of Amsterdam, in front of the Royal Palace, and the nearby Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Members of the royal family and various dignitaries lead the crowds and nation in the tributes. However every city and village plans its own version of Remembrance Day, all activity stops for those long two minutes at 8 p.m. for silent commemoration.
For me, one of the most touching features of the Day of Remembrance is not just how the Dutch still honor and remember their own dead. They also honor and swear never to forget how so many non-Dutch fought and died in order to liberate Holland from Nazi occupation — the thousands of British, Canadian, American and Polish soldiers who also gave their lives in World War II.
The Netherlands American Cemetery in Margratan, southeast Netherlands. The cemetery is the only one in the Netherlands for Americans who died during the months of military operations leading to the May,1945 liberation. Over 8,000 American soldiers are buried here; an additional 1.723 are listed as missing in action and whose remains were never found.
This lesson in history and appreciation of freedom was brought home to me soon after our arrival in the Netherlands, three years ago. We met by chance at a medical conference a young (mid-30s) physician from Maastricht, in southeastern Holland. Upon hearing we were Americans, he asked if we knew about the U.S. WWII cemetery in Margratan, just outside of Maastricht. We did not, much to our subsequent embarrassment. He told us how thousands of Dutch have “adopted” a dead U.S. or Canadian soldier, as the majority of the liberating forces in southern Holland were either Canadian or American. As part of the remembrances observances, the people go every May 4 – if not more often – to tend “their” soldier’s graveside, to lay flowers, and to just remember why that man is buried there. He said he takes his young children, then about 5-7 years old, every year to honor “their soldier,” because “I never want them to forget.”
Yesterday was our first Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. We had been invited to dinner by our next door neighbors, John and Leduine. As we rang their bell, I noticed John had the Dutch flag at half mast, so we asked what is their form of observance of the two minutes of silence.
“Why, of course, we observe the two minutes of silence,” said John. “We will start our first course of dinner, then about 7:40 I will turn on the television, and we will watch the ceremonies in the Dam Square in Amsterdam. The King and Queen will come out of the Royal Palace just before 8 p.m. to lay the first wreath, and then the whole country goes silent.”
And, so we did. Thousands of people crowded into Dam Square, with trails of observers standing in the many side streets leading to the square and the national monument. Comprising these hundreds of thousands were multi-generational Dutch families, WWII veterans, former Resistance members, Jewish Holocaust survivors, recent immigrants, military representatives from around the world — yet hardly a person spoke, and those who did, whispered. It was truly amazing to see how quiet thousands of people could be.
Right before 8 King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima walked solemnly from the palace to the monument, and laid an immense wreath for all the Dutch war dead. Still without saying a word, they stepped back and waited for the bugle’s call for silence, followed by eight peals of the church bells exactly at 8 p.m. The ensuing silence was moving as well as astonishing. Not a sound, nor whisper, hardly a clearing of throats. I couldn’t imagine having so many people in one place in the U.S. staying silent and respectful as the Dam crowd did.
It was truly a moment that brought home how powerful silence can be, not just in rendering respect for those who died, but bringing together those alive and present in acknowledging those people’s sacrifices, and most importantly, standing as one, a disparate crowd of people — with all their differences — finding unity and purpose in giving silent thanks.
Footnote: Today, May 5, is Liberation Day when the Dutch celebrate the surrender of the occupying Nazi Army and the liberation of the Netherlands. For a look at some interesting historical photos of Utrecht, see the blog of another American resident of Utrecht on this topic go here.